Pet therapy isn’t new to senior care, but bunny therapy is — and it’s bringing with it some unique advantages to seniors this Easter.
Learn more about how Peter Cottontail is hopping down the bunny trail this spring to visit a senior living community, and offer warm, fuzzy and therapeutic services to residents free of charge.
An award-winning Dayton-based bunny breeder, Cassie Tuttle brings half a dozen or more of her adorable rabbits, including the state of Ohio’s “4-H Grand Champion” Max, for frequent therapeutic pet cuddling sessions with senior residents at Spring Hills Singing Woods, an assisted living and memory care residence a short distance from her home.
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Her arrival for each session is itself a sight to behold, as she totes her creatures in an array of individual pocketbooks, each bunny wiggling and peeking out with anticipation. As each pet is placed in the lap of a resident, the cuddling immediately produces positive responses, ranging from squeals of delight to calm relaxation.
“In many ways, handling a rabbit has a lot of advantages for seniors [when] compared with petting a dog,” Tuttle explains.
“They’re light and huggable like a teddy bear, so you can hold them on your lap or cuddle them up high and bury your face in their fur. Bunnies don’t jump around and they really don’t drool, which some dogs do. They also really feel good to everybody.”
As is widely established in senior care, the stroking of a docile animal can be beneficial in stress reduction and in promoting general feelings of well-being. Even in communities that welcome personal pet ownership, which includes all of the residences in the Spring Hills Senior Communities group, many seniors do not feel confident caring for a pet, but miss the special relationship they once enjoyed with an animal companion.
Tuttle began working with rabbits as a 4-H’er when she was 7 years old, and began bringing bunnies to visit senior communities when she was 10. Now a young adult and a successful rabbit breeder caring for forty rabbits, Tuttle says that — at least where her personal animals are involved — the beneficial touch of bunny therapy is comforting both ways, as it brings happiness to the humans and to her pets.
“Since my rabbits have been hand-raised and handled daily since infancy, they actually crave attention,” Tuttle added. “Now that we have returned many times, some of my rabbits seem to have favorite people they look forward to seeing.”
Tuttle is often assisted in these visits by her mother, Suzanne Tuttle, a disabled veteran. Suzanne Tuttle introduced her daughter to raising and breeding rabbits as a small child when Cassie was diagnosed with Asperger’s, a syndrome associated with communication challenges and difficulties with social interaction.
Raising and presenting show-quality bunnies offered a calming avenue of socialization for Cassie, as she matured. Taking the initiative to bring the rabbits to the Spring Hills seniors and her leading role as their handler has increased her personal confidence, as well. Her generous work attracted the spotlight when every major television station in Dayton showed up to watch a cuddle-session at Spring Hills Singing Woods five days before Easter.
A recent graduate of home-schooling, Tuttle has now determined that she will soon go on to study therapeutic touch in a formal way and make that her career.
Regular interaction between residents and neighbors is a key value at each of the Spring Hills Senior Communities, which span from northern New Jersey to central Florida.
Deirdre Middlestetter, the Executive Director of Spring Hills Singing Woods in Dayton, Ohio, feels very fortunate that this generous young volunteer from their neighborhood has brought so much joy into their residence.
“Whenever the bunnies arrive,” Middlestetter said with a big smile, “the staff all gathers around because they love handling these animals too. It’s a special experience for all of us. We love it when Cassie and her bunnies come around.”
Liz Matt is a longtime feature reporter and former television host in Philadelphia. Liz’s beat has included coverage of the performing and visual arts, lifestyles, travelogues, celebrity spotlights and family profiles.
Do you have experience with bunny therapy or another kind of pet therapy? We’d love to hear your story. Share it with us in the comments below.